September’s Psalm of the Month: 91B

The ninth installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal


To the LORD I’ll say, “My Refuge!”
In my God my trust abides.

This setting of Psalm 91 is beloved by psalm-singing congregations across the globe. The well-known tune HYFRYDOL, composed by Welsh textile worker Rowland Hugh Prichard at the age of nineteen, lends beauty and confidence to the powerful words of this psalm.

In congregational singing, look for ways to emphasize particular words and phrases in the text of Psalm 91B. Consider pausing slightly before the cry, “My Refuge!” in stanza 1, and taking quick breaths anytime a comma appears in the text (“serpents, lions, tread” in stz. 4). Bring out the earnestness of Psalm 91 by varying the volume and intensity of your voice: perhaps draw back on the more contemplative words of the third stanza, then build up again to the climax at the close of stz. 4. Most importantly, reflect on how the Lord has been your own refuge and fortress as you sing, and let personal application breathe added life into this awe-inspiring psalm.

Suggested stanzas: All

Source: Psalm 91A in The Book of Psalms for Singing and The Book of Psalms for Worship, Psalm 91 in the Trinity Psalter

Tune only: Blue Psalter Hymnal 151, Revised Trinity Hymnal 196, 498

Listen to a recording:

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 91

  • The godly one’s words to the Lord (vv. 1,2)
  • Safety from enemies (vv. 3-6)
  • Safety from judgment (vv. 7,8)
  • Safety from plagues (vv. 9,10)
  • Safety from stumbling (vv. 11-13)
  • The Lord’s words to the godly one (vv. 14-16)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 91

Satan twisted the words of Psalm 91:12 when he tempted Jesus to show his authority by casting himself off the pinnacle of the temple (Matt. 4:5-6, Luke 4:9-11). Jesus’ response revealed his wholehearted obedience to his Father: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” But there is more: Christ went to the cross in order to trample the serpent underfoot (v. 13). He suffered the afflictions of Psalm 91 in order to deliver us from our bondage to sin. His life was cut short so that ours could be redeemed. Through his death and resurrection we have been shown God’s salvation (v. 16).

Applying Psalm 91

  • What kinds of snares and pestilences do Christians face today (v. 3)?
  • Why do you deserve to “only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked” (v. 8)?
  • How have you seen God’s protection and deliverance in your life (v. 14)?
  • What do you do when God’s deliverance seems far away despite your cries to him (v. 15; cf. Ps. 22:2)?

Think about these two considerations—first, our own weakness, and second, the roughness, the difficulties, the thorns which lie along our way, along with the stupidity of our hearts and the subtlety of the evil one who lays snares for our destruction—and you will see that the Psalmist is not exaggerating. We could not proceed one step if the angels did not bear us up in their hands in a way beyond the normal course of nature. Through our own fault, we often stumble when we depart from our Head and Leader. But even though God allows this in order to convince us how weak we are in ourselves, he never permits us to be crushed or completely overwhelmed, and then it is virtually as if he put his hand under us and bore us up.

—paraphrased from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 91:12


Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 6)

The Big Three (Psalter Hymnals)It’s long past time to wrap up URC Psalmody’s summer series. I head back to Geneva College in a week, and what I imagined as two or three blog posts has grown into a lengthy and multi-faceted series. That’s typical fare for this blog—so today, let me try to provide some concise closing thoughts.

We began by asking this question: Why do we sing out of a Psalter Hymnal? More particularly, why do we sing both psalms and hymns in worship, yet still insist on distinguishing between the two?

To help answer this question historically, I dug up several applicable documents from the early history of the Christian Reformed Church: overtures from different classes in 1928 (here and here) regarding the question of hymn-singing, the “Report on the Hymn Question” from 1930, the Foreword to the first Psalter Hymnal in 1934, and a few other sources. I found plenty of arguments for and against hymn-singing in worship (along with a fair share of weird Dutch expressions). What I didn’t find was a substantial argument on Biblical and historical grounds to justify the introduction of hymns—especially in a denomination that had gotten along fine without them since the Reformation 300 years earlier. I read plenty of reasons why hymns might be permissible in worship, but not much (other than repeated appeals to “New Testament light”) as to why they were needed.

In fact, even the optimistic Psalter Hymnal Committee of 1930 acknowledged some significant dangers with the introduction of hymn-singing. One of them was that the psalms would cease to be sung in worship. Wary of this possibility, the Committee proposed the following principle:

Whereas the Psalms in the Old Testament were purposely given for Public Worship (cf. for instance Ps. 51:1; 52:1; 53:1; etc.) and were used accordingly, and whereas they do not belong to the things set aside by the New Testament, but, to the contrary, their Divine authority and lasting worth is pronouncedly acknowledged in the New Testament (Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33,35), it must be considered, acknowledged, and maintained by us as a principle founded on the Word of God, that Psalm-singing must always remain an element in our Public Worship.…[A] service without the singing of Psalms would be conflicting with the will of God as revealed in His Word. (pp. 21,22)

Yet after this well-placed word of caution, the committee rushes to add, “Nor does it follow that because of said danger the use of New Testament Church songs must be considered out of the question.” Just because they can be abused doesn’t mean they can’t be used properly, they suggest. Besides, they claim, the “urgent demand” for hymns in Reformed churches cannot be brushed aside as “disloyalty, spiritual weakening, and retrogression.” Once again they call attention to supposed insufficiencies in the psalms: that they speak only “in the Old Testament language of hopefully expectant prophecy, not in the New Testament language of jubilant fulfilment.” And here’s the real whopper: they turn the discussion about hymn-singing on its head by suggesting that an exclusively psalm-singing church is “guilty of neglect in properly caring for Public Worship and for the perfection of the saints, and of slighting a precious gift of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, a psalm-singing church harms its members by not allowing the singing of hymns. That’s a bold claim!

In summary, the committee asked the Synod of 1930 to (1) continue the preparation of a collection of English hymns; and (2) to (attempt to) prevent psalm-singing from fading away by revising the Church Order and setting limits in place on how many hymns could be sung in a worship service. Synod more or less agreed, and the Psalter Hymnal project moved forward. That’s most of the story; for the rest of it, you can refer back to the first Psalter Hymnal’s Foreword.

Got it? Does this synopsis give you an historical glimpse into the reason for the unusual wording in the URCNA’s Church Order—that the psalms “have the principal place,” but hymns “may be sung”? The relationship between psalms and hymns in North American Reformed worship is a long and complicated one. Partly it was a Dutch vs. English and European vs. American issue. Partly it was a Reformed vs. broader evangelical issue. Mostly it was an issue of biblical interpretation. And just because the CRC’s synod officially “settled” the question doesn’t mean it really went away.

Eighty years ago, hymns entered the worship of a denomination that was still deeply divided over the question. That’s the heritage that’s been handed down to us in the URCNA.

I can’t end without noting one additional twist, however. While the 1932 Church Order clearly stated that “the singing of the Psalms in divine worship is a requirement,” the CRC later revised their Church Order to merely state, “The consistory shall see to it that the synodically-approved Bible versions, liturgical forms, and songs are used” (Revised Church Order, 1959, Article 52b). All reference to the primacy of the Psalter was gone! With that revision in mind, it’s important—and encouraging—to note that the URCNA’s Church Order is actually a step back in the direction of principial psalm-singing.

How will the URCNA’s worship change as the years go on? Will our new Psalter Hymnal prove to strengthen our commitment to psalm-singing or dampen it? For the answer to these questions we’ll have to wait on God, pray fervently, and work for the good of the Church. May our worship be pleasing and acceptable in his sight.


“Crippled in Both Feet”

1887 United Presbyterian Psalter

1887 United Presbyterian Psalter

Why has psalm-singing fallen by the wayside in so much of the Western church? Many people blame the rise of hymn-singing for the decline of psalm-singing. But in 1906, two men from the Christian Reformed Church reversed the argument. Instead they blamed a deficiency in psalm-singing for the rise of hymn-singing.

Today I’d like to take a short excursion from this summer’s Behind the Psalter Hymnal series—which is almost over, don’t worry—to present another fascinating document from the vaults of church history. It’s a report submitted to the synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1906 on “the new American rhyming of the Psalter.” That “new American rhyming” would become the United Presbyterian Psalter published in 1912, whose psalm settings have become beloved favorites in many Reformed churches. The 1912 Psalter was the source for most of the psalm settings in the blue Psalter Hymnal and several other psalters of the 20th century.

As the finishing touches were being applied to the text of this new psalter in 1906, Henry Beets and Henry Vander Werp submitted this report to the CRC’s synod to provide some background and personal commentary on the project. The original report was in Dutch; since then it’s also been converted into English by an unknown translator, and the version I’ve posted on URC Psalmody is a slightly edited version of this translation.

Dutch Psalter, 1773 translation

Dutch Psalter, 1773 translation

In their report, the two Henrys compare the psalters that were then being used in the English-speaking and Dutch-speaking churches of the CRC. The former often used the 1887 United Presbyterian revision of the Psalter (pictured at the top of this page). The latter used the Genevan Psalter according to its 1773 translation into Dutch (pictured at right). In colorfully blunt language, Beets and Vander Werp expose serious deficiencies in the English psalter. They call it “kreupelrijm, en in meerdere gevallen kreupel aanbeide voeten”—“a crippled rhyming, and in most instances crippled in both feet.” They compare the Dutch psalter to the sun, and the English to “the moon, and not even a full moon!” They even write that the English translation “must take a back seat for the Dutch sister”—who knows where that expression came from.

Readers from the Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA), you might think the authors would at least have a higher regard for your psalm settings. Nope—in their opinion, the psalter “of the Covenanter Church here and in Scotland is much poorer and less poetic” even than the “crippled rhyming” of the United Presbyterians. Ouch!

We could easily write off these pastors’ criticisms of the English psalter as mere ethnic favoritism. Of course two ministers whose first language was Dutch would prefer a Dutch psalter to an English one! But I think there’s more to it than that. Beets and Vander Werp write:

The greatest defectiveness…with respect to the rhyming of the Psalms in our country is the spiritual poverty. In order to cling scrupulously to the Hebrew text, they have, so to speak, placed handcuffs upon the spirit thereof in many places. The glorious worshipful spirit of the Psalms cannot spread out its wings far enough in such narrow boundaries.

I’m sure Beets and Vander Werp would emphasize that any translation of the Psalms must faithfully represent the original Scripture. But they make an interesting point: by attempting to be slavishly literal, the translators of past English psalters often made the psalms actually more difficult to understand. How can the average psalm-singer even begin to worship while struggling to decipher perplexing lines like “For thee to keep in all thy ways/His angels charge He shall”? Such language may have been (slightly?) more colloquial in 17th-century Scotland, but in our contemporary American context, must we really settle for this?

Not only do these ministers propose that a rhyming of the psalms can be done better, they say it needs to be done better. They write:

From this is to be understood the great urge for spiritual songs [i.e. hymns] which are used in the American churches. At first these hymns found entrance because the Scottish rhyming did not do enough for the Christian heart, which felt a need greater than the stiff, crippled, spiritually poor rhyming used for centuries in the Scottish churches could supply. Hence there are very few Psalms found in the hymnbooks of most American churches. (emphasis mine)

Here my ears really perked up. If you ask why the Psalter has fallen out of use in most American churches, people will blame a variety of sources: Isaac Watts’ psalm paraphrases, Ira Sankey’s gospel hymns, or the genre of “CCM.” But what if these pastors are on to something? Maybe part of the reason we stopped singing the psalms was because our translations didn’t do them justice.

There’s good news, of course. The 1912 Psalter, which Beets and Vander Werp called “unquestionably a great improvement,” has ingrained its psalm settings into the hearts and minds of multiple generations of believers, including many of us in the URCNA. Now, in the 21st century, we have at our disposal a wealth of resources for psalm-singing that is not only literal but also beautiful and memorable. The Reformed Presbyterians’ recent Book of Psalms for Worship includes many excellent psalm settings, both new and old, recast in simple, straightforward English. For those who still prefer the Genevan tunes, like Beets and Vander Werp so obviously did, there are the Canadian Reformed Churches’ new Book of Praise and New Genevan Psalter. And, of course, we have the promise of a further contribution to modern metrical psalmody in the URCNA and OPC’s forthcoming Psalter Hymnal.

When it comes to hymns and psalm settings, I’ve always tended to be a stickler for the “original lyrics.” I love some of the quirky wording of old psalters, and I’ll be sad if I ever have to see them go: “All earth to Him her homage brings,” “Who only doeth wondrous works in glory that excel.” But if we insist on clinging to archaic, deficient psalm settings merely for the sake of history or tradition, we may need to be reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “[I]f with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?…For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (I Cor. 14:9,33).


Read the complete report here »

150 Questions about the Psalter (Review)

150 Questions about the Psalter“God gave his church the musical gift of the Psalter,” writes Bradley Johnston at the beginning of his little book 150 Questions about the Psalter (107 pp., Crown & Covenant, 2015). Formatted as a psalm-singing catechism of sorts, Johnston’s book teaches readers to love the Book of Psalms as a gift from God and to learn to shape their devotions and worship by it.

After an opening section entitled “Introducing the Psalter,” the book proceeds through six other divisions: “Christ in the Psalter,” “The Arrangement of the Psalter,” “The Content of the Psalter,” “Meditating on the Psalter,” “Singing the Psalter,” and “The Majesty of the Psalter.” Each division answers a variety of questions about the psalms: What is a metrical psalter? Should we regard the Psalter as merely a hymnal for the Old Testament? How do we learn to see Jesus Christ in the Psalter? Why should we sing the Psalms?

While Johnston’s answers to these questions are overall quite simple and straightforward, 150 Questions also includes almost 100 endnotes with fuller explanations and references to other resources on psalm-singing. Interspersed throughout the text are selected stanzas from a modern metrical psalter, The Book of Psalms for Worship. Several appendices in the back of 150 Questions trace the life of David through the Psalter, the patterns of the imprecatory psalms, an index of psalm references in the New Testament, and much more. It’s a readable, satisfying, and even fun introduction to the riches God has given his Church in the Book of Psalms.

Realizing that its author belongs to a denomination that sings only psalms in corporate worship, I feared that 150 Questions would immediately estrange readers from other church traditions by pointedly condemning hymns and other extra-biblical songs. Refreshingly, my fears were unfounded. Johnston chooses to argue for psalms rather than against hymns, making this “psalter catechism” a helpful and attractive resource for readers from a wide variety of worship styles. At the same time, reading a book so saturated with the riches of the Psalter left me painfully aware of the deficiencies of much of the church’s other music—which is probably a good thing.

My only quibble with 150 Questions is that some parts of it are very formal in tone, reminiscent of the style of the Westminster Catechisms. While this allows Johnston to provide succinct, precise definitions for the attributes of the Psalter, I tend to think a warmer, slightly more conversational tone would help the book’s winsomeness, especially for newcomers to the practice of psalm-singing. Overall, this is a minor blemish and should not deter the serious reader.

If Christians are not careful, psalm-singing, like any other tradition, can quickly become a source of pride and even idol-worship. It’s possible to read 150 Questions as nothing more than a militant defense of one denomination’s historical distinctive. But that’s not the point. Read with a humble, biblically-informed perspective, Johnston’s little book will help believers in every walk of life love the Book of Psalms more.


(Per FCC rules, I need to note that I was sent a complimentary review copy of this book, and I was not required to write a positive review.)

August’s Psalm of the Month: 77

The eighth installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

"I will walk in the strength of the LORD God"

Forever will the Lord reject
And never show His grace?
Has He withdrawn His steadfast love
And turned from me His face?

While lines like “O God, most holy are Your ways” may call to mind the blue Psalter Hymnal’s settings of Psalm 77 (#145-147), the version of this psalm that appears in the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal is much more recent, originating in the 2003 Scottish psalter Sing Psalms. The deep pain and earnest questioning of Psalm 77 are reinforced by the plaintive tune RESIGNATION, a traditional American folk melody harmonized here by Dale Grotenhuis. Although it does not appear in either the blue Psalter Hymnal or the revised Trinity Hymnal, the tune may be somewhat familiar in connection with Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 23, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.”

As you sing Psalm 77, notice how the inflection of the text coincides with the rise and fall of the musical line. Special attention should be given to the climax of the psalm in the middle of the third stanza: “Forever has his promise failed? Is God no longer kind?” In contrast, note the quiet assurance that accompanies the affirmations of God’s loving acts in stanzas 6 and 7, and share in the psalmist’s journey from crisis to comfort.

Suggested stanzas:

  • 8/2: stanzas 1-3
  • 8/9: stanzas 3-5
  • 8/16: stanzas 5,6
  • 8/23: stanzas 6,7
  • 8/30: all

Source: Psalm 77 in Sing Psalms

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 77

  • Remembering and moaning (vv. 1-3)
  • Remembering and doubting (vv. 4-9)
  • Remembering and searching (vv. 10-12)
  • Remembering and resting (vv. 13-20)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 77

Especially in the 400 “silent years” between the last Old Testament prophecies and the birth of Jesus, the Jews could well wonder whether God’s promises to Israel were “at an end for all time” (v. 8). With rampant idolatry and harsh persecution pressing in, believers would have seen a stark contrast between his “wonders of old” for them (v. 11) and his current silence. Jesus’ birth was the first “good news” (Luke 2:10) to God’s people after this time of dispersion and affliction. And what good news it was: the same Christ who led his people like a flock in the hands of Moses and Aaron (v. 20) would himself come as the Good Shepherd, from whose hand no sheep can be snatched (John 10).

Applying Psalm 77

  • Why did the psalmist moan when he remembered God (v. 3)?
  • Have you ever doubted whether God’s promises still apply to you (v. 8)?
  • Where does the psalmist turn for comfort (vv. 10,11)? How can you obtain the same comfort?
  • How do the terrifying events of vv. 16-19 reveal God’s steadfast love?
  • Why does Psalm 77 end so suddenly (v. 20)? How does this closing statement summarize the psalmist’s comfort?

The psalmist continued to set God before his view, wisely supporting his faith by the reflection that God, who never changes his love or his nature, can do nothing but in due time show mercy to his servants. Let us also learn to open our eyes to behold the works of God. They may seem insignificant by reason of the dimness of our eyes and the inadequacy of our perception, but if we examine them attentively, they will ravish us with admiration.

—paraphrased from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 77:12


Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)

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